Bradford: Sorry hitters, the pitchers are on to you

Rob Bradford
May 18, 2018 - 10:22 am

USA Today Sports

There has been so, so much chest-beating about this whole evolution of hitting. And for good reason.

Around here it has been a revelation, with J.D. Martinez, Mookie Betts, and Xander Bogaerts, to name a few, who have already hit the ceiling on preseason expectations. Launch angle. Hunting pitches. You've heard all the talking points. And it's not only in these parts. This has become one of the most prevalent themes in baseball this season. There is a reason the Tampa Bay Rays tilted up their cage during batting practice. They wanted guys to hit the ball in the air, and the constant ricochet off of the metal bar above them was not encouraging such an act.

But there is something going on in Major League Baseball few have taken notice of: The pitchers are winning.

When you have so many home runs being hit for a second straight season, it's hard to grasp that the ones throwing the baseball are getting the upper-hand. This is, however, starting to become the reality. The evolution of baseball has shifted once again.

For me, this is a realization that started after talking about the dynamic with Rick Porcello.

"I used to throw fastballs middle-away at 87-88 mph because I knew the guy wasn’t going to swing or I knew this was a guy who was contact-oriented and let’s challenge him to make contact," Porcello said. I’ve got seven guys out there behind me and let’s make him hit the ball. He’s going to hit it at somebody and that’s our game-plan. There are not as many contact-oriented guys. The philosophy has changed for offenses. They want to put runs up early in the game from the first hitter all the way through. And that makes for a little more pressure from the start of the game as far as executing your pitches from Pitch One, all the way throughout.

"There are a lot of teams having success doing it. It doesn’t always result in home runs. It results in doubles or even loud singles. It’s the aggressive nature of the hitter trying to do damage on every single pitch they take a swing at that is effective. It can take you out of your game as a starting pitcher, or you can use that aggressiveness to your advantage. It works both ways. This is where offenses are at right now and as baseball players you have to adjust and continue to evolve against what you’re facing and what you’re competing against."

Talking to Porcello, the first impression I got was that this approach by hitters has sent anxiety into pitchers. As he noted, there aren't any breaks to be had. But then you get to those last few lines.

"It can take you out of your game as a starting pitcher, or you can use that aggressiveness to your advantage. It works both ways. This is where offenses are at right now and as baseball players you have to adjust and continue to evolve against what you’re facing and what you’re competing against."

That led to a deeper discussion.

A closer look at the numbers to date show that the pitchers are starting to take advantage of this new approach by hitters.

The first thing you have to understand is this strategy really started kicking in a couple of years ago, with the obvious payoff coming with the massive amount of home runs hit in MLB last season. The pitchers probably noticed, but never quite regrouped like they have this time around.

"I don’t think it’s the difference in the hitter this year. I think it’s been like this the past two years, probably," Porcello noted. "I think as you’re trying to hit the ball in the air more you don’t really get rewarded for hitting the ball on the ground. So that’s generally the approach that you see, trying to lift the baseball and look for pitches in certain part of the zone you can do that.

"This is my 10th year and over the course of those 10 years I’ve seen a progression in hitters and what they’re trying to do. There was a time in my career where there was not a lot of home runs being hit so teams were stealing bases, hit-and-running a lot, were a lot more contact oriented, working counts, making you throw more pitches. It’s just the evolution of the game and it’s going to continue to evolve like that."

Now, look at what is transpiring this season (with the caveat that some of these numbers might be a product of poor early-season temperatures):

- Swings and misses are at the highest percentage they have been in the last 10 years.

- The percent of pitches put in play is at the lowest it has been in the last 10 years.

- The percent of swings where the ball has been put in play is the lowest it has been in the last 10 years.

- Compared to the last two seasons, home runs and runs per game are both down.

- This is the lowest collective batting average MLB has managed in the last 10 years (.246). 

- Opponents' OPS, and slugging percentage? Both down. As is ERA.

Perhaps when the weather gets warmer and hitters start refining their new way of life, the conversation will be shifting back to how smart the hitters are. And, make no mistake about it, this whole thing is making pitchers' jobs more difficult.

"You have to be aware that there are quite a few guys in the lineup who have the ability to hit the ball out of the ballpark," Porcello said. "You have to throw swing and miss pitches from the get-go because any contact in the air could mean trouble. Two home runs and one of them with runners on base, that’s your game right there and that’s in a matter of two or three pitches in a 105-110-pitch outing that can make or break it. As a pitcher, there is no comfort in settling into the strike zone. You’re trying to throw your best pitcher from Pitch One of the entire at-bat."

For now, however, the pitchers are the ones making the most significant move. It's time to take notice.

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